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Portland couple tune their ears to ring up more Paralympic gold

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - U.S. goalball players Asya Miller (left) and Jen Armbruster enjoy a Portland summer day with their German Shepherd, Vail, as they await defense of the Paralympics gold medal in London.The world Jen Armbruster sees is gray at the bottom with black arches — “Goofy’s eyebrows,” she calls them — on top.

“Everything below that is the edge of the firelight,” she says.

Armbruster’s marriage partner, Asya Miller, has 20-200 vision; she can see a building across the street, but cannot read the signs on it.

Both began to lose their sight years ago. Neither is bitter. Through the sport of goalball and each other, they have been able to find new dreams and become champions.

Armbruster, 37, and Miller, 32, live together in Southeast Portland. They have a 1-year-old son, and each has a Paralympics gold medal.

“Silver is a hard medal in a team sport, because you ended on a loss. You just lost gold. There was a lot of bad taste in our mouth in ‘04.” — Jen Armbruster

In less than a month, they will defend their title at the London Paralympics, which take place after the Summer Olympic Games.

“Everything revolves around goalball,” says Armbruster, who coordinates inclusive recreation at Portland State University. “My last few jobs, I wouldn’t have been there without it. More important, I wouldn’t have found my wife and had my son. Goalball is woven into every aspect of our lives.”

Target marks

Entering high school, Armbruster was a talented young point guard in Colorado Springs, Colo. At 14, she began losing vision in her right eye. Three months later, she lost vision in her left eye. Even though legally blind, she continued to play on her school’s basketball team.

by: COURTESY OF ASYA MILLER - Asya Miller, who grew up in Michigan, took quickly to goalball when introduced to it about the time she was throwing the discus for Western Michigan University.“My visual impairment changed a bit of my game, because I only had peripheral vision out of my left eye,” she says. “I couldn’t see the hoop or anything like that, but I could see the lines on the court, so everything went off of that.”

Armbruster’s school put tape marks on the court, including a target line down the key to help her shoot free throws. Also, teammates adjusted their games to help her.

“They did a great job,” she says, “and most of the time they remembered to do a bounce pass versus a chest pass, because the chest pass would whack me in the face unless it was coming from my side.”

During the next three years, Armbruster’s vision remained stable. Then she went blind in a period of four hours.

The best guess why Armbruster lost her vision is optic neuritis. Her symptoms do not quite fit the condition, though. Armbruster’s theory is that her vision may have been affected by nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl accident in 1986, when a Soviet Union nuclear plant blew. The disaster created significant radiation in Germany, where Armbruster’s military family was stationed.

Miller’s vision began failing — because of Stargardt disease — when she was in high school in her native Lapeer, Mich.

“It was so gradual that you can’t really pinpoint specifically when (it happened),” she says.

But Miller’s dream of becoming a police officer slipped away, as did Armbruster’s dream of joining the military.

Hand-ear connection

Both women soon found goalball, a sport invented in 1946 to help rehabilitate visually impaired World War II veterans.

Each team has three players. Each athlete wears an eyeshade, which ensures that no one is able to see anything.

by: COURTESY OF JEN ARMBRUSTER - Jen Armbruster is a goalball veteran, having been on the U.S. national team since she was a 16-year-old in Colorado Springs.The game is played on a standard volleyball court (29 1/2-feet wide and 59 feet long). A goal is at each end. The object is to roll a 3-pound ball — with embedded bells so the players can hear it — into the opponent’s net. Each team takes turns throwing the ball from one end of the court to the other. A game has 12-minute halves.

On offense, a goalball player must have the same skills as a softball pitcher.

“You should be able to throw the fastballs, curves, reverse curves,” Armbruster says. “Your accuracy should be where you want it all the time.”

It’s not as easy as it may look.

“People don’t realize how heavy the ball is and that it’s going 35-40 miles per hour,” Armbruster says.

On defense, a goalball player must have the skill set of a soccer goalie.

“You’re diving and extending for the ball,” Armbruster says. “The big difference is it’s hand-ear coordination versus hand-eye coordination.

“The tracking is huge — tracking where the ball is coming from, but more important where your body is going to meet it in space. If you’re getting your body on it, you’re going to be successful.”

Armbruster was introduced to goalball through a local school for the blind.

A natural athlete, Armbruster instantly took to goalball. At 16, she made the U.S. national team and competed in the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, where the U.S. took fifth.

Miller learned of goalball while attending Western Michigan University, where she was a Division I track and field athlete.

“I met a lot of other people who are visually impaired, and they played (goalball),” Miller says. “They were like, ‘You’re athletic, you should try it.’ “

Throughout college, Miller played for the Kalamazoo Chaos in a women’s goalball league. Armbruster was playing for the rival Colorado Bandits. From 1999 to 2007, all eight regional or national championships came down to the Chaos and the Bandits, with each team winning about half the time.

Miller was impressed with Armbruster and approached her after a game. The meeting did not go well.

“I had heard about this awesome goalball player,” Miller says. “But when I went up to introduce myself to her, I thought she was kind of rude. She stood there like, ‘Why are you talking to me?’ “

Miller gave Armbruster a chance, though.

“With the whole blind thing, it’s easy to misinterpret things,” Miller says.

Soon, the two began to connect and spend time together.

“We had so much in common that it was just a matter of us both being single at the same time,” Miller says. “From there, it just clicked.”

Miller, who won a bronze medal in the 2000 Sydney Paralympics in the discus, joined the U.S. goalball team a year before graduating college and helped the U.S. win the silver medal in the 2004 Athens Paralympics.

By that time, Armbruster was a national-team veteran. She had earned bronze in the ‘96 Atlanta Paralympics and taken fifth in 2000 at Sydney.

The silver in Athens stung Armbruster more than any other finish.

“Silver is a hard medal in a team sport, because you ended on a loss,” she says. “You just lost gold. There was a lot of bad taste in our mouth in ‘04.”

The 2008 Beijing Paralympics erased that taste. The U.S. team, which is coached by Armbruster’s father, Ken, fought back into the medal rounds and beat China 6-5 in the gold-medal game.

“2008 was a fairy tale,” Jen Armbruster says. “It couldn’t have been scripted any better.”

After that, Armbruster and Miller moved from their home in Birmingham, Ala., to Portland. Armbruster had been offered a job in Portland State’s campus recreation program, working with the school’s adaptive sports programs.

Also, Armbruster and Miller wanted to start a family. The two were married in July 2007 in Canada, where same-sex marriage is legal. But they had concerns about raising a child as a same-sex couple in the South.

Armbruster and Miller found a donor in Birmingham, and Miller carried the child after insemination.

“It was a planned thing as far as when we were going to do it and what year she could take off,” Armbruster says. “She always genetically wanted to have a little her. ”

After giving birth to son Ryder last year, Armbruster began working out in preparation for the London Paralympics. During the past four months, she has dropped 40 pounds.

Miller says she also is close to being back to 100 percent for the London games, Aug. 30 to Sept. 7.

This year, the U.S. has won two tournaments (one in Finland and the Pan-Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico), while finishing second in a tourney in Sweden and third at the London Invitational. The U.S. is expected to face stiff Paralympics competition from Canada, China, Denmark and Finland.

“Our chances are pretty good,” Ken Armbruster says. “But the parity of women’s goalball is very even. Whatever team plays well and maybe gets a break is going to win it.

“It was no different in Beijing. It was a very tough tournament. If we played again two weeks later, I doubt if the same four teams would’ve been in the semis.

“We’re going to have to use our experience and be smart and stay in the game.”

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